Ethical Leadership Principles in 1 Timothy 6

Ethical Leadership Principles in 1 Timothy 6

What is “good?” Leaders must know how to approach this question to do the “good” that is required in the name of leadership ethics. Many approaches exist in determining the answer to ethical questions. Egoism, deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics theory are the most discussed schools of thought. This article seeks to add to this conversation by extracting ethical leadership principles from the Pauline perspective as communicated in the 1 Timothy 6 pericope; this article uses Robbins’ (1996) social-cultural texture analysis of the socio-rhetorical interpretation methodology. In using this method, this article seeks to understand what Paul’s expectations were for Timothy regarding leadership ethics within the original social and cultural setting. In doing so, the author hopes to apply relevant ethical principles to the understanding of ethics in Christian leadership today.

Social-Cultural Texture Analysis

With enough available research, the social-cultural texture analysis can accomplish three things, revealing crucial contextual information that informs better scriptural exegesis; this includes (1) showing the text’s social-cultural nature as a text, (2) examining the social-cultural location of the language as a text, and (3) examining the type of social-cultural world the language evokes (robbins, 1996). Such examination of the context in which he wrote 1 Timothy 6 is necessary to fully understand how Paul’s advice and expectations of timothy related to (and were a result of) the world in which they lived.

Paul-Timothy Correspondence Background and Setting

Timothy was of mixed ethnicity, his mother being Jewish and his father being Greek (Acts 16:1). Paul had a unique background as well, being a Roman citizen, Hellenistic Jew, and Christian. Both Paul and Timothy were very well-traveled and likely had a broad understanding of first-century Mediterranean society and culture. These experiences may be one reason why Paul favored sending Timothy for certain leadership situations; Timothy understood the cultures behind both Judaism and Greek pagan religions (Witherington, 2006). As such, Paul often used Timothy as a coauthor, messenger, and someone to go before (and after) him to ensure local congregations heeded special instructions (deSilva, 2004).

The specific backdrop of the 1 Timothy letter is assumed to be after Paul left Timothy behind at Ephesus to address particular issues while Paul traveled to Macedonia (deSilva, 2004; Towner, 2006). The text is an ad hoc, situational, personal letter from Paul to Timothy that addressed both personal ethics for Timothy and order within the church. Although some parts of the letter are intensely personal, they may ultimately be subservient to the issue of establishing proper order in the church (Fee, 2000). The letter appears to be both for Timothy’s edification as well as the edification of the church body that he served.

The Ephesian church was of strategic importance. Tt was a Greek city with significant Roman influence; yet, it also had a large Jewish colony. The Jewish presence was primarily the result of Jews being brought to Ephesus as slaves from the eastern end of the empire; they had subsequently developed their subculture (Antiquities, 14:228, 255-264; 16:160-165, trans. 1737). The city was third largest in the Roman Empire with a population greater than 250,000. Ephesus’ strategic geographic location was also a reason why the Roman Emperor chose it as the central hub for his college of messengers (Witherington, 2006). This geographic location could indicate why Paul viewed Ephesus as being so important; from Ephesus the early Christians could easily and widely disseminate the gospel. As previously mentioned, Timothy’s background helped qualify him as a good fit in Paul’s eyes to lead in this locale. Timothy had received the divine call to ministry (1 Tim. 1:18; 6:20), was passionate for the church (Phil. 2:20-22), and held great potential (1 Cor. 16:10; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). However, 1 Corinthians 16:10-11 suggests that Timothy may have been young, timid, and lacking a commanding presence, among other possible leadership issues (Towner, 2006). Thus, Witherington (2006) suggests that Paul’s letter also intended to bolster Timothy’s ethos among the Ephesians, as well.

Specific Social Topics

This form of Paul’s discourse reveals information about the early Christian response to the world of the Ephesians. Paul’s response to the social situation in which he perceived Timothy to be is an example of an introversionist approach (Robbins, 1996). The nature of each of Paul’s instructions as to how Timothy was supposed to consider his environment and respond reveal this introversionist texture. Each response requires inward meditation (1 Tim. 4:15- 16) and measuring real dilemmas against the standards of sound doctrine hidden within Timothy’s heart (1 Tim. 6:3, 11-12, 17-18, 20). The discourse may also take an introversionist approach concerning how the Ephesian church body ought to respond to the world around them. The phrase “all who are . . .” (1 Tim. 6:1) serves as a rhetorical indication that Paul expects Timothy to read aloud at least some of the contents of the letter to the Ephesians, a common social practice of the time (Montague, Healy, & Williamson, 2008). As such, the local church was expected to respond accordingly, preoccupying themselves with their holiness (Robbins, 1996), and to an extent, insulating themselves from the unholy aspects of surrounding society. Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Timothy 6:3-5 implies that those engaging in this list of vices might have included some of the Ephesian Christian teachers (López, 2011). The message intends to focus these teachers inwardly for them to recognize the unsound doctrine, turn from it, and avoid behaving like unbelievers.

Common Social and Cultural Topics

Specific topics within this narrative highlight the perception the people had of their world and the context in which they lived. Two issues stand out: the behavior of Christian slaves, and the misplaced concern for and understanding of material wealth. Surrounding both is an undercurrent, warning Timothy of false teaching on these subjects (1 Tim. 6:3-5, 20-21). Slavery was a standard social practice in the first-century Mediterranean world (Martinsen, 2012). Paul’s rhetoric in verses 1-2 suggests that some Christian slaves interpreted their newfound spiritual identity in Christ to have leveled the social stratification of their time, permitting them to perceive themselves as social equals to their masters and, therefore, not needing to afford their masters the socially appropriate honor and respect due to them. This would have been shocking behavior to nonbelievers and disappointing to masters, given the distinct honor-shame culture that characterized their time (Robbins, 1996).

Paul’s text also reveals that some within the church may have focused on gaining material wealth, especially while holding the idea that with wealth comes the hope and certainty of security (1 Tim. 6:9-10, 17; Kivunzi, 1985). Some may have even thought and taught that the Christian life was a means toward financial gain (1 Tim. 6:5). Interestingly, Paul’s rhetorical response to this is not one of extreme reversal. He avoided prescribing pure asceticism which some teachers had propagated at the time, and instead reflected the stoiccynic concept of self-sufficiency as being ideal by using autarkeia in his rhetoric (1 Tim. 6:6; Byrne, 2001; Witherington, 2006). However, he contrasted this with a notion of contentment in sufficiency from God’s provision as being superior to the dominant culture’s material concept of self-sufficiency (Brenk, 1990).

Paul’s rhetoric resembles a “challenge-response” form (Robbins, 1996, p. 80-82) in several ways. The entire account is essentially a challenge to Timothy to follow Paul’s instruction, often utilizing the “flee-pursue” formula (Towner, 2006). The ethical prescriptions extend to Timothy’s audience as well, including those who seek to lead. Paul challenged Timothy to flee from false teaching, the love of money, fruitless controversies and other vices, and to pursue “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11, NASB). Similarly, Paul ordered Timothy to instruct the rich to share generously, not fixing their hopes on material gains, but on God (1 Tim. 6:17). When Paul said the wealth seekers became “conceited” (hupselophroneo), he meant the opposite of the Godly virtue of humility. In condemning this behavior, Paul challenged the Greek cultural tradition of glorifying pride (MacArthur, 1995). Instead, he expected the church in Ephesus to respond by using their riches to “do good” by generously sharing (1 Tim. 6:19).

Final Cultural Categories

From Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Timothy 6, several priorities for ethical conduct stand out. At times Paul used subculture, counterculture, and liminal rhetoric. Paul directed liminal rhetoric toward the correction of the Christian slaves. They had engaged in counterculture behavior, forsaking the honor and respect they owed to their masters once they had gained their new identities and spiritual statuses in Christ. Paul rebuked their response and issued a call to respect the dominant culture’s norms (Martinsen, 2012), in this case to protect the integrity and reception of Christian doctrine and testimony (1 Tim. 6:1). He also later touched on liminal rhetoric again when, after using counterculture rhetoric to correct the unhealthy pursuit of material riches (1 Tim. 6:6-10), he rejected pure asceticism—a counterculture movement some Christians may have taught at the time (1 Tim. 6:17). Paul reframed the issue, clarifying that God provides things to Gis people for their enjoyment (Malherbe, 2010). Those blessed with abundance were advised to share their material goods generously with others as well; doing so was an investment in true stability and certainty in spiritual rewards (1 Tim. 6:17; Eubank, 2011).

Finally, Paul engaged in elements of the dominant culture and subculture rhetoric in mentioning a few virtues. When Paul mentioned “desires” (epithymiai, 1 Tim. 6:9), this mirrored greco-roman philosophy and its position on the passions as being antithetical to virtue. “Ruling oneself” in this sense was the virtuous concept of subordinating one’s desires and emotions to pure reason. Greco-Roman philosophy echoed this (Phaedo, 94b- 95a, trans. 1977), as well as in Jewish thought (Aristeas, 277-278, trans. 1913; 4 Macc. 1:1; 1:15-2:14; 5:22-26, RSV). Paul challenged Timothy to strive for the virtues of 1 Tim. 6:11. Paul used the term “agon”—a symbol of the struggle through training to which athletes had to commit when preparing for Olympic contest performance (Witherington, 2006)—to analogize the need to develop virtuous character. In the end Paul charged Timothy with “guarding the deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20), a concept very similar to protecting financial deposits in a bank. In this context, the deposit is the gospel and the tradition of teaching its theological and ethical principles (Witherington, 2006). Timothy was the trustee of the “sound doctrine deposit” and was required to protect its integrity by living and teaching its ethical principles.

Applying Paul’s Ethical Principles to Today

Within this passage, Paul provided Timothy with a few key guidelines for the church. Verses 11-14 stand out as Paul requiring Timothy to lead by example (Gundry, 2003). Paul knew that Timothy would have to provide a living example of a virtuous character for the Ephesians to observe before Timothy could hold the credibility required for effective leadership. This is in keeping with modern leadership research; to lead well, leaders must first lead themselves and practice what they preach (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). Leaders must behave in ways that are consistent with their values, as well as with socially-accepted moral codes, before followers perceive them as authentic (Fields, 2007).

Bass and Steidlmeier (1999) propose that to transform others, leaders must first develop and maintain firm moral foundations; this idea is echoed by the principles Paul transmitted to Timothy regarding the relationship Christian slaves should have with their masters. Paul wanted Timothy to instruct the Ephesians to observe social norms when they did not violate God’s order. Paul’s rhetoric consistently displayed a spiritual response to material issues. Regarding wealth, Paul encouraged a moderate approach, neither obsessing over riches nor subscribing to extreme asceticism. Regardless of what people materially possessed, Paul contended that they ought to have enjoyed their social and material status as God’s intended and loving provision.

To be capable of standing firm and teaching sound doctrine while challenging false teachers with potentially bad intentions, Timothy needed to lead a virtuous life. Paul’s rhetoric of balanced introversion indicated that Timothy needed to concern himself with his holiness and to develop in his mind a strong competence regarding his teaching and leadership. Competence, confidence, and personal values are crucial to leaders’ effectiveness (Ross, 2014). Paul provided a few enumerated virtues in verse 11. However, the overarching ethical principle behind the virtues needed of Timothy was the ethical call to love god and love people. The “love people principle” is reflected in the call to give generously to others and for Christian slaves and masters to treat each other ethically. These actions also reflect the “love God principle.” Additionally, maintaining a proper attitude toward wealth and material possessions reflects the “love God principle,” as well. Finally, loving God is behind the solemn call to guard Christian tradition and doctrine.

Contemporary virtue ethics theory maintains that the person who has established an ethical character will be more likely to act ethically, simply out of second-nature when facing moral dilemmas (Crisp, 2010; Fedler, 2006; Wright, 2012). Christian leaders today can lead ethically by loving God and others, preserving sound doctrine, and living the example. As Christian leaders face countless decisions, they encounter countless opportunities to develop character. Developing deeply rooted Christian character from habitually practicing these principles is the surest way to program oneself to meet the ethical challenges for Christian leadership today.


Bass, B. M., & Steidlmeier, P. (1999). Ethics, character, and authentic transformational leadership behavior. Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 181—217.

Brenk, F. E. (1990). Old wineskins recycled: Autarkeia in 1 Timothy 6:5-10. Filología Neotestamentaria, 3(5), 39—52.

Byrne, P. J. (2001). 1 Timothy 6:6: “A window on the world of the pastorals.” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association, 24, 9—16.

Crisp, R. (2010). Virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. Metaphilosophy, 41(1/2), 22—40. deSilva, D. A. (2004). An introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, methods, and ministry formation. Downers grove, IL: interVarsity Press.

Eubank, N. (2011). Almsgiving is ‘the commandment:’ A note on 1 Timothy 6:6—19. New Testament Studies, 58(1), 144—150.

Fedler, K. D. (2006). Exploring Christian ethics: Biblical foundations for morality. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Fee, G. D. (2000). 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (7th ed.). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Fields, D. L. (2007). Determinants of follower perceptions of a leader’s authenticity and integrity. European Management Journal, 25(3), 195—206.

Gundry, R. H. (2003). A survey of the New Testament (4th ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Kivunzi, T. M. (1985). Biblical basis for financial stewardship. East Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology, 4(1), 24—34.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

López, R. A. (2011). A study of Pauline passages with vice lists. Bibliotheca Sacra, 168(671), 301—316.

MacArthur, J. (1995). The MacArthur New Testament commentary: 1 Timothy. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

Malherbe, A. J. (2010). Godliness, self-sufficiency, greed, and the enjoyment of wealth 1 Timothy 6:3-19, part I. Novum Testamentum, 52(4), 376—405.

Martinsen, A. (2012). Was there new life for the social dead in early Christian communities? An ideological-critical interpretation of slavery in the household codes. Journal of Early Christian History, 2(1), 55—69.

Montague, G. T., Healy, M., & Williamson, P. (2008). First and Second Timothy, Titus. Retrieved from login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=478498&site=ehost-live&ebv=EB&ppid= pp_cover

Robbins, V. K. (1996). Exploring the texture of texts: A guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ross, S. (2014). A conceptual model for understanding the process of self-leadership development and action-steps to promote personal leadership development. Journal of Management Development, 33(4), 299—323.

Stanley, C. D. (2012). The ethnic context of Paul’s letters. In A. W. Pitts and S. E. Porter (Eds.), Christian origins and Hellenistic Judaism: Social and literary contexts for the New Testament (pp. 177-201). Retrieved from site=ehost-live&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_201

Towner, P. H. (2006). The letters to Timothy and Titus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Witherington, B. (2006). Letters and homilies for Hellenized Christians: A socio-rhetorical commentary on Titus, 1—2 Timothy and 1—3 John. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Wright, N. T. (2012). After you believe: Why Christian character matters. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Andrew L. Cavins, MPP, is an instructor of Advanced Electronic Systems in the U.S. Coast Guard. He is also a doctoral student of Strategic Leadership/Strategic Foresight at Regent University.

Leave a Reply